UFO Hunters │ Review

(Tor Books)

UFO Hunters is a companion book to the highly popular History Channel series of the same name and provides more color and detail to the episodes of Season 1. Written by the host of the series, William J. Birnes, he takes you through the back stories, adventures, and eye-witness accounts of extra terrestrial encounters from Seattle to Mexico and LA to London.  The intention is to bring scientific methodology and investigation to uncover the “truths” behind UFO phenomena.

As a scientist, from my perspective this is a laudable goal and not as quixotic as it might seem at first glance. You see, we’ve learned here from our experiences on earth that life just seems to want to be, wherever it possibly can – in hot springs, volcanic vents a mile deep in the ocean, and even conceivably clinging to our unmanned spacecraft, surviving the voyage, and establishing itself in the inhospitable, steamy perdition of Venus. Given the enormity of the universe which is, to the limits our detection, infinite, it would be highly unlikely that earth contains the only life, nor the only sentience.  That being said, however, UFO Hunters gets one star for an entirely valid concept but very poor execution.

The episodes and corresponding book chapters are themed either by a well-known UFO sight/location such as Area 51, or a collection of incidents of a certain type such as UFO crashes.  The crew travel to the sight, interview whomever is still around related to the incident(s), and then search for physical evidence that they can subject to testing.  The author spends a great deal of time touting the rigor of the testing, but IMHO, it was nearly always shoddily done and inconclusive.  Ironically, the ambiguity of the results is often used to argue in support of evidence of aliens.  Let me cite a particularly egregious example.

In Chapter 4, titled “Abductions” (yes, alarms are clanging already), they interview a couple who claim to have been abducted.  The woman has saved her clothing from the evening, a torn dress with a pink powder residue on it. The powder residue was tested and found to have “protein remains.” The author claims that these traces of “organic” compounds are suggestive of the presence of a life-form and thus supportive of the claim of abduction. He says the “skeptics” will claim that the fact that no unknown or otherworldly chemical elements were found, discredits the story (actually, I have zero problem with this; if they had found something new, we’d be talking Nobel prize material and some rewrites of the laws of quantum mechanics, because the last time I checked the periodic table was pretty full).  I do have an issue with the test results, though, and the conclusions drawn from them.

Author William J. Birnes, host of ‘UFO Hunters’ (The History Channel)

Although the word has been co-opted to mean many things, “organic” from a chemical standpoint means “carbon-containing” and does not necessarily have anything to do with life. Organic stuff crashes to earth all the time in the form of meteorites.  And take it from an experienced analytical chemist, we can identify a substance a whole heck of a lot better than being “carbon-containing” or “protein remains.”  Unfortunately, this is representative of the strength of the evidence and testing quality presented.

In a number of cases, the situation is worse as the bulk of the evidence consists of eyewitness testimony. The book cites the presence of multiple corroborating stories as proof of alien spacecraft. Often these accounts include lights (blinking or otherwise) and aerodynamic “saucer-like” shapes indicative of the classic UFO, and I am not sure whether to put this down to lack of creativity or basic science knowledge, as neither of these features would be particularly useful to navigate through the vacuum of space.

Regardless of this, the bottom line is, as the saying goes, “the plural of anecdote is not evidence.” The author writes than many witnesses are reluctant to come forward (lest they project the image of having just blown in from Crazy Town), which adds to the credence of their testimony.  I admit that I feel that many of these people have had a few of the dots shot off their dice, but not because of what they claim to have seen.  Many of them have almost certainly seen something very weird and classifiable as an “unidentified flying object.”  The problem I have is that some go through this sort of mental checklist, e.g. it can’t be a bird, can’t be a plane, can’t be Superman… can’t be anything I and maybe a couple of my friends can think of, so it must be alien.

The book goes on to complain about the skeptics, who would rather believe almost anything other than an extraterrestrial visitor. There is nothing wrong with this – it is simply a commonly used form of hypothesis generation known as Occam’s razor or the law of parsimony. The next idea to be tested logically ought to be the simplest possible fit to the data. And simply because you personally might not be able to generate another possibility doesn’t mean that others cannot or should not.

The team from the ‘UFO Hunters’ TV show (The History Channel)

Let me tell you a little story about a colleague of mine who did his chemistry Ph.D. work at the University of Arizona, Tucson, which is, ironically, a “hot spot” for UFO sightings.  Chemists are often oddballs; we like explosions and for many of us, this was an initial attraction to the subject. The further advanced we get in our studies, the more access we have to unusual and “fun” substances to play with.

My friend and his buddies used to like to fill balloons with hydrogen gas, attach magnesium strip fuses to the bottoms, tie them together into an interesting shape, them take them out into the desert at night, light the fuses, then let the whole thing loose into the sky. Seen from a distance, this would look mighty weird. The magnesium flares would be an array of intense white lights buffeted around by the nighttime desert air currents.  Once the fuse ran out, the hydrogen would ignite with a brilliant, but mostly noiseless flash.  Oxygen explodes with a “BANG!” but hydrogen is a much more quiet “Foof!” like an antique camera flash.

These chemists were not trying to hoax anyone, they were just knocking around a bit, and heaven only knows what a pack of physicists might be able to launch on a lark. I don’t claim this as a particular explanation for a story in the book, but I am suggesting that one should not jump immediately from the conventional explanations to aliens, but rather explore the space in between a bit more thoroughly. And just asking around town might not get you the necessary explanation/confession, especially if materials had been smuggled out the back door of the lab and alcohol was involved…

(The History Channel)
(The History Channel)

Okay, so enough about why I feel this book is mostly bunk. The truth of the matter is that there is so much interesting science in the field of space exploration, the possibility of life on other planets, etc., and it’s a damn shame the series didn’t make the most of it and a cool opportunity to educate. The late Carl Sagan founded an entire institute dedicated to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) that rates only a paragraph of mention in the book. NASA sent a special probe, Galileo, to fly by Jupiter’s moon looking for evidence of water and geothermal vents that could produce life similar to that found deep in the mid-Atlantic oceanic ridge. Comets have been examined to see if they might contain compounds to seed life, and chemical studies such as the Miller-Urey experiment have tested planetary conditions that might generate such building blocks. We’ve even sent a recorded welcome message out of our solar system on the Voyager 2 spacecraft in hope that “others” might stumble across it. There are all sorts of fascinating, fully researched and documented work out there, but the UFO Hunters prefer to alternatively accuse the government and scientific community of refusing to acknowledge their evidence and “see the truth” and of conspiring to cover up secrets about UFOs. What’s up with that?

I’ll just leave this be now with some words about science from the Nobel prize winning physicist, Richard Feynman:  “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.”   [subscribe2]

About Andrea Sefler

Andrea Sefler
Andrea is a consultant and technical writer for various scientific software and instrumentation companies. She has a Ph.D. in chemistry from Berkeley and has never met a genre of music or books that she hasn’t liked. As a gamer since the days of the Apple II, Andrea can relate any number of hair-raising tales about role-playing games stored on 360 kB 5.25” floppy disks and may, someday, put them to paper.

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